Friday, July 11, 2014

Hurricane Preparedness: Evacuation

Not actually Erin.
Picture by KJ Photography
& is used with permission. 
Florida is known for many things: sunshine, gunshine, beaches and hurricanes (not these Hurricanes -- they belong to New Orleans), among others. But while most everyone thinks "Florida" when they hear the word "hurricane", the truth is that it's not that simple. Every state along the Gulf of Mexico (hello, Katrina) and East Coast (hello, Sandy) is vulnerable.  With us well into Hurricane Season (from the beginning of June to the end of November -- yes, that's a full six months) and the appearance of the first named storm of the season (hello, Arthur), now is an excellent time to talk about hurricane preps.

Disclaimer: I have never lived through an actual hurricane strike on my home town. Therefore, I can only speak from from a perspective of decades of living under the shadow of such.  However, I have lived through countless Tropical Storms (pre-Category 1 hurricanes) and several near-misses,  and no one else on this blog lives in a hurricane state. 

Stay Aware
My #1 tool for weathering a severe storm is knowing what is going on. This is made significantly easier by the existence of the internet and storm tracking websites like this one -- back in the 1980s, when I first moved to Florida, we were given maps (free at supermarkets) and had to manually track the course of threatening storms by watching the news and updating our maps with a pencil. Everything else was handled with a Weather Alert radio tuned to the NOAA frequency to warn us of severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, etc (and, more often than not, scare us in the middle of the night with an emergency siren that announced a "special marine warning" -- bad weather at sea -- that didn't affect us at all).

These days, folks have it easy: smartphones and tablets give us immediate access to the internet and there are a variety of weather apps for both Apple and Android devices that will give alerts whenever threatening weather is close. Between that, television and the radio, there is no excuse for being caught unaware by potentially hazardous weather. Situational awareness applies here!

Keep Your Car Fueled Up
Not only is there going to be a run on gasoline as a storm approaches (along with the concomitant increase in price), in some states (like Florida) it is illegal to sell gasoline if a state of emergency is declared. As a friend of mine likes to say, "Take care of the top of your gas tank and the bottom will take care of you."

Have Multiple Evacuation Routes
This is especially important in Florida, as it is a peninsula and storms can come from the Atlantic (east), the Gulf (west) or the Caribbean (south). It's not enough to have an evacuation route -- make sure that you are evacuating in the right direction! Getting out of town does you no good if you end up driving right into the path of a coming storm.

Not only do you need routes to take you out of town in all key directions (I have yet to see a hurricane swing down from the north, but the day I don't have a plan for it is the day that the weather turns weird and does something unprecedented), but you need  multiple routes, especially if you live in or near a metropolitan area. Despite having two practice runs (Hurricane Georges in '88 and Hurricane Ivan in '94), New Orleans' 2005 evacuation was still plagued with congestion from the one million people who had evacuated. If you are fleeing a storm, know multiple ways to get out, even if it involves taking unpaved country roads. The very last thing you want is to be caught stuck on the interstate because of a multi-lane accident, or trapped on surface streets by gridlock, while a storm surge and hundred-plus mile an hour winds bear down on you.

Have Designated Meeting Places
Many evacuees will drive separate cars. Sometimes this is because one member of the family is at work when the evacuation order is given (but see below), and sometimes this is because the family is so large that all family members, pets and bug-out bags -- you DO have fully stocked bug-out bags for every member of your family, don't you? -- simply cannot fit in a single conveyance. While driving two cars certainly increases cargo capacity, it also increases the possibility that family members will get separated during the evacuation. What do you do when that happens?

Cell phones are great for staying in touch -- as long as you have coverage. Walkie-talkies are useful, but their range is limited to a few miles -- and on the road, it's easy to get that far apart within minutes. 

Instead, my  solution is to go low-tech:  make sure every car has a detailed atlas for every state you may travel through and designate meet-up spots in case you get separated. This may be as simple as "the first rest stop across the state line" or as complex as a street address. Write these meet-up locations (called "rally points" in military jargon) inside the cover of the atlas so they won't get lost. And yes, I said locations, plural -- on a long journey you need more than one. General rule of thumb for military convoys is a rally point every 20 miles or so, but you don't need to go that route; something simple like "every Chevron station at an interstate exit" or "every highway exit that ends in 5" will suffice for most purposes.

And yes, combining this advice with #3 means that you need rally points for every single route you may take. Being prepared takes effort.

Listen to the Professionals
I shouldn't have to say this, but when you are told to evacuate, get the hell out of town.  Ideally you shouldn't have to be told -- hurricanes are large and slow-moving things, and there's plenty of time to get out of their way. In fact, if you think an evacuation is going to be ordered, leave before the order is given: you'll be far less stressed, won't run into as much traffic, and necessities like food, gas and hotel accommodations will cost much less. 

On the other hand, if you intend to bug-in (most Floridians won't even get out of bed for a tropical storm, and Cat 1 hurricanes are met with cookouts and parties), then commit to bugging-in and riding out the storm. Don't think you can ride it out only to decide at the last minute that you can't, and try to leave when the storm is at its height -- or worse, be forced to leave because your home is falling apart. 

Making sure that your home is actually hurricane-proof is the topic for next week's article. 

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